Leaving NYC. I dial the creepy numbers that every New Yorker knows by heart: 1-800-666-6666. The car service arrives twenty minutes later with tinted windows, balled-up tissues on the floor, and a CB radio that does not stop squawking the whole way to JFK: I need more cars in midtown, guys, more cars in midtown, over. In two hours, I will be cruising at 36,000 feet towards the North Pole, en route to a new life in Helsinki.
Right now I’m staring out the smudgy windows of the towncar, watching Chinatown’s red and yellow noise fade into the high-concept restaurants and thousand-dollar dress shops of Nolita, followed by the triangulated Starbucks vortex at Astor Place as we creep north to the tunnel. I wave goodbye to Other Music and think about how I’ll miss the row of cheap Indian restaurants a few blocks to the east. I map out the rest of the city in my mind, trying to anticipate what else I might miss, what else is owed a quiet goodbye. After eight years, I feel powerfully oriented, knowing the location of almost everything – although in New York you never know what you’ll find once you get there: a fire, a parade, a police chase, a protest, a press conference, a building falling over. It’s an unpredictable town, so we hang onto the grid for dear life because it’s one of the few things you can count on.
The car idles at a light near Union Square. Scuzzy kids in military fatigues wave signs about the benefits of peace while a spiky haired girl wearing a t-shirt that says “Self Service” slaps hands with a guy in a red tracksuit doing the electric slide to an old Grandmaster Flash breakbeat. I did not take enough photographs while living here. Who needs to go to Helsinki? Point your camera at the stream of people flowing across Union Square and you can fit the whole sweep of the world into your viewfinder. I’d like to convince you that this overpowering sense of humanity is what I’ll miss most about New York City, but I’ll probably just miss the cheap Chinese food.
When trying to pin down what he liked best about Paris, Georges Perec wrote, “I like my town, but I can’t say exactly what I like about it. I don’t think it’s the smell. I’m too accustomed to the monuments to want to look at them. I like certain lights, a few bridges, café terraces…” I know what he means. Get too close to a place and it’s difficult to see it objectively. The best I can say right now is that I like knowing New York has everything I need, whenever I want it.
Six weeks later. Upon arriving in Finland, I braced myself for an impenetrable language, difficult food, and odd social customs, but I was also shocked by the physical city. I quickly learned that knowing where to look or how fast to walk aren’t universal conventions – these are habits that each city teaches us.
Small details throw you at first. Street signs, for example. Instead of green tags that hang from poles near the intersection, in Helsinki they are engraved in the sides of buildings. Although this approach keeps the streets free of metal clutter, I often find myself creeping around corners, trying to figure out where I am. When you cross the street, there is no flashing red hand telling you to hurry up. If the little green man disappears while you’re in the crosswalk, you better run because the engines are already gunning. Some intersections twist the screws by adding a high-pitched chirping soundtrack that speeds up the closer you come to getting creamed by a tram.
Address numbers are used sparingly. Most blocks have only two or three numbered buildings, each subdivided into letters: 2A, 2B, and so on. This system makes sense because each building takes up a half block or more, yet it dramatically alters your sense of scale when there’s a three-block walk between 18 and 22. As I fumble around my new town, pushing instead of pulling, searching for doorknobs that do not exist, and putting the wrong things in the recycling bins, I’m always drawing comparisons to New York and I’m surprised at the things that I miss:
The numbered grid system. You don’t realize that something as prosaic as First Avenue and 24th Street could be so brilliant until you’re standing at the intersection of two streets named Tarkk’ampujankatu and Korkeavuorenkatu, trying to find Raatimiehenkatu.
White noise. Sirens, radios, trucks backfiring, shouting matches, and the ambient thrum of radiators, air conditioners, and ventilation systems – this constant background chatter is the oxygen of city life, the thing that keeps me plugged in.
Bodegas. The equivalent here are Kioskiis, which are only open until 9pm, closed on Sundays, and they don’t sell flowers, pastrami sandwiches, hammers, bagels, kites, cake mixes, or bhangra CDs.
Street art (or graffiti, depending on your outlook). You’ll see the ghosts of a few stickers and stencils in central Helsinki, but that’s about all. I miss the visual jolt of layer upon layer of stickers and wheat-paste posters promoting hipster bands, launching clumsy political broadsides, or offering inscrutable pictures of C-list celebrities saying ironic things.
Most of all, I miss my outdoor living room. There are no stoops in Helsinki, restaurants are a special treat, and the city falls asleep early and barely wakes for the weekend. Throw in the arctic climate and this means a lot of time is spent indoors. Fortunately, my new flat is warm and roomy and, for the first time in my adult life, I have a reasonable kitchen counter. Europeans are no strangers to small apartments, yet they still shake their heads when I tell them I shared a 300-square foot flat in Chinatown (or to use the local parlance, 28 square meters).
“My god, how did you manage?” they ask.
“Just fine – I was never home.” And I wasn’t. In the mornings I’d dawdle with a coffee and a pastry in Columbus Park, watching the old Chinese men chain-smoke over fierce games of xiangqi. After work there were dinners and drinks with friends, but also many suppers alone: cheap Szechuan bean curd or a spicy cappicola sandwich in some small shoebox of a restaurant, and then onwards to a café or a park or a stoop where I’d sit with a book or my laptop. I wouldn’t get home until nearly eleven and even then I’d often take a walk to the bodega at two in the morning just to stretch my legs. There’s something remarkably reassuring about the bodega in the middle of the night. It’s an informal gathering place for neighbors who might otherwise never bump into each other – a few drunk hipsters, an old woman who can’t sleep, a couple of cab drivers, and people like me staring into the coolers, unsure of what they want or why they’re here aside from a desire to be out in public.
This doesn’t sound like a very exciting life, I know. I wish I could report that my days were a hot blur of white-tie fundraising banquets, drug-fueled after-parties, hotel rooms full of fashion models, and the other velvet rope hallmarks of New York movies. But now that I’m four thousand miles away, I miss my happy life of cafes, stoops, cheap food, and twenty-four hour everything. I was spoiled by a city that spilled out from my fire escape like an extension of my living room: an endless kitchen, library, couch, and entertainment system.
The Living Room. In Home from Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler writes that “the public realm of the street was understood to function as an outdoor room. Like any room, it requires walls to define the essential void of the room itself.” Kunstler focuses his discussion on the traditional Main Street configuration of mixed-use buildings, big sidewalks, and a buffer of parked cars or trees against the traffic – which describes most of the streets in New York and Helsinki. So why do the ‘walls’ feel so different between the two cities?
Is it the diversity of the building stock? New York offers a terrific jumble of architectural history with buildings from different ages jammed against one other like a demented jigsaw puzzle. One of my favorite views is the corner of Bowery and Canal where the Beaux Arts arch of the Manhattan Bridge sits among friendly brownstones, bleak Modernist housing projects, an old bank modeled on a Roman bathhouse, and corporate glass boxes rocketing across the background. Compared to this wild noise, Helsinki’s buildings beat the quiet rhythm of a metronome. With the exception of a few glass shopping malls, you see the same four-story gingerbread house again and again, although sometimes it comes in yellow, green, blue, or brown.
Do messy sidewalks indicate a lively city culture? Is a stoop friendlier than a courtyard?
Perhaps it’s a matter of scale and orientation. The average building in New York is roughly forty feet wide, whereas Helsinki is built out of gigantic stone fortresses that sometimes span an entire block. New York’s brownstones have stoops that spill onto the sidewalk; Helsinki’s doors point inward towards private courtyards. And rooftops: New Yorkers treat their roofs as a shared yard for barbeques, sun-tanning, and watching fireworks. Because of the snow, Helsinki’s buildings feature pitched roofs that make it impossible to set up some lawn chairs and a plastic swimming pool. Most of Helsinki’s buildings hardly have a windowsill wide enough for a flowerpot, yet New York’s apartment buildings are dotted with balconies and fire escapes, semi-private spaces that connect to the public realm as people smoke, hang their laundry, and grow tomatoes while the city watches and vice versa.
The initial effect is a sense of invitation from New York versus a slightly standoffish posture from the enormous sheer facades of Helsinki. This might be a stretch, but perhaps the variation, scale, and orientation of New York’s buildings reflect the same qualities we like to see in ourselves: diversity, nimbleness, arms outstretched to others.
There are elements beyond the physical city that also influence one’s sense of connection to a place. Weather is certainly a factor and, to be fair, I’ve only known Helsinki in the eternal darkness of winter. People tell me just wait and see: Helsinki is a different city in the summertime. Nonetheless, if a city’s climate were a critical factor in determining its appeal, Miami and San Diego would have outpaced New York and Chicago long ago.
The cost of food is an influential element as well: cheap food keeps you out of the kitchen. In New York, I ate out nearly every night and often kept only a bottle of ketchup in the fridge. In Helsinki, you would go broke living this way (I tried) – there are no street vendors offering a plate of lamb over rice for $4 and there is no lady on Mosco Street serving six dumplings for $1. This points to a few underlying issues: although Helsinki continues to grow more diverse, foreign-born residents make up less than 7% of the population, compared to 36% in New York. More importantly, there are no Chinatowns or Spanish Harlems. The Finnish government takes special care to scatter immigrants – mostly Somalis seeking asylum – throughout the city. Although this encourages integration, I wonder what kinds of valuable communities may have been lost. Additionally, the country’s fierce commitment to collecting its 22% value added tax on all transactions results in a bureaucracy that stifles the possibility of an informal or wholesale economy.
When sorting through the underpinnings of a city’s personality, you wind up looking at people. By European standards, Helsinki is quite young, with its city plan and downtown core established in 1816. By American standards, this is ancient. New York’s landscape constantly shifts as buildings go up only to be torn down in the name of progress. The heartbreaking demolition of the old Penn Station in 1963 sobered the city up, but only slightly. “As usual, everything in New York is torn down before you have had time to care for it,” wrote the poet James Merrill. “You would think the simple fact of having lasted threatened our city like mysterious fires.” Thanks to the harsh weather, Helsinki’s big stone buildings were built to last and, two centuries later, hardly anybody has fooled with them. Although there are a few labyrinthine glass malls in the city center, the texture of Helsinki is unmistakably stone. A city’s shape reflects the personality of its people and in New York’s skyline you can trace the chaotic forward march of a young nation that places a premium on change and modernity versus Finland’s emphasis on pragmatism and tradition.
As I walk through Helsinki, I try to pin down the elements that keep me at a distance. Sure, it’s an unfamiliar environment and yes, it’s spelled out in Finnish and Swedish – but there’s something else, something beyond simply being in a foreign country. When I look down at the sidewalk, it hits me: Helsinki is too clean. This goes beyond the tidy rows of stern neoclassical buildings with their stark walls and uniform address signs. There are no guys selling perfumes out of duffle bags and you never hear a honking horn. There are no mounds of cigarette butts or blackened gum spots on the sidewalk or trash bags stacked along the curb. And magically, there are hardly any trashcans.
Why do I respond negatively to order and cleanliness? First, let’s be clear: I am not one of those people who will argue that New York was a better town when you ran a higher risk of getting stabbed or that today’s gentrified Times Square should be given back to the junkies and peep shows. Nonetheless, Helsinki is teaching me that my personal image of the city is a lot like my living room on its best nights: chaotic, noisy, and slightly shabby in parts. Other cities have struck this nerve, such as New Orleans and Taipei – places where different cultures collide and there’s a mild amount of anarchy. You see it in the buildings and the tangled networks of fire escapes, balconies, stoops, and benches. You taste it in the food and you see it taped to the lampposts.
Do messy sidewalks indicate a lively city culture? Is a stoop friendlier than a courtyard? I’m still unpacking my personal biases and it will take some time to untangle them from ‘universal’ design principles, if such things exist. There are probably just as many people who prefer a city like Helsinki over New York, so perhaps it’s easier to tackle the question from another direction: is a personal connection to one’s environment simply a function of time and familiarity, or is it possible to arrive in a new city and, after taking a look at its buildings and establishments, immediately have a gut feeling that says, “Yes, this feels good. I could get comfortable here”?
Either way, spring is finally coming to Helsinki and I should take another walk down Uudenmaankatu.
James A. Reeves is a writer, educator and designer currently living in Helsinki.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.